Editor’s note: This Milwaukee couple has taken on their second home renovation project, dubbed the “Midwest Malibu Cottage,” and has invited us along for the ride! Stay tuned for all those ups, downs and delicious before + afters! Check out the first installment here.

Illustration by Tallulah Fontaine.

So we’ve come to the end of the easy road with our projects here at the Midwest Malibu Cottage. All the low-hanging fruit has been snatched from the bottom branches. No more simple paint and styling initiatives are left so it’s time for us to roll up our sleeves and get real dirty. And what better room to get dirty in than a bathroom? That’s what we’re here to show you today – the reinvention of our main bathroom!

This is the third bathroom renovation project we’ve tackled together, but only the first at this house. If you recall, we have two bathrooms in this house, but this is the only fully outfitted room, as the other is just a powder room off of our kitchen. We’ve known the scope for this room since the day we first saw this house but we’ve put off doing the work in here for a multitude of reasons: it’s very messy, it’s very expensive, it’s very risky in that you never know what you’ll uncover when plumbing is involved, and it would be temporarily invasive to our lifestyle. Since this is the only room where we can actually bathe ourselves, we knew we had to be totally ready for the impact on this project to our lives. So after completing all of the projects that required less invasive levels of work, we knew we had to get serious, and completing this room would also complete the “private” end of the house.

It was in this room, during the open house when we first visited this place, that we kinda snuck away to have that whispery conversation you have where you strategize out of realtor earshot so you can keep a poker face: What do you think? Can we do this again? I mean, what about this bathroom – it’s a complete gut job! This is probably where the decision to buy this house was made. And if we can make a decision to buy a house standing here, in this, one of the two worst rooms in the entire place, there must be a lot of perceived potential. The issues are glaring: dark red wall tile, grey-and-pink-tiled floor, dark-painted walls, and a single, water-stained, ranchy, brown oak vanity. It has been a struggle to bathe for the past year in a room that felt so dark and unclean. By now it should be clear the answer to our problem – white it out! – so let’s get to the good stuff, and we’ll walk you through how it all came about.

midwest malibu cottage — bathroom

Clean Thoughts

A bathroom is a unique place in a home, don’t you think? You occupy the space for some intimate moments, a place where you really come in contact with yourself under a lot of different circumstances: sometimes you’re rushing around in a hurry to prepare yourself for work; occasionally you’re struggling in your not-best look to dig for aspirin to nurse a hangover; there are those nights you’re feeling great as you’re putting on the final touches before a night out; and there are those days when you swear you’ve never been so sick and you beg the tub to fill faster so you can soak away a fever. In all of these scenarios we’re looking to transform ourselves in some way, always for a positive outcome. We definitely recognize and value that the bathroom is a source of renewal for us and, just like our other bathroom projects before, wanted to make this a space that would lift our spirits.

In our culture today home bodies are rejoicing that staying in is the new going out. We are pretty active people so when we get home we usually like to stay here. And with wellness today being a recreational hobby rather than some strategy or afterthought, we wanted to create a place that we could look forward to, one that can host our routines in a way that complements and even heightens the outcomes and effects. For us, we have identified in our favorite moments together that we’ve felt the most renewed when at the beach, surrounded and grounded by natural elements, so we wanted to deliver that sensation into this room as much as possible.

Before we dive into selections, we did want to discuss that we installed a crucial filter for our decision-making at the very beginning with this room. While this is today our primary bathroom, we do have long-term plans to add an actual en-suite master bathroom in the future and under those terms this would become our full guest bathroom. So we challenged ourselves to balance making a gorgeous space but not pull out all the stops and sink all our budget here in this room – we’ll get the chance in the future to do our ultimate bathroom. With that filter in place, it was kind of fun to explore what we wanted and make sure we achieved it in as budget-friendly a way as we could.

Shiplap is a wall cladding material we have turned to several times, for many different reasons. Here in this room, we found it as a way to add a visual consistency around the perimeter of a room that has a lot of existing components that need to be tied together. Additionally, the horizontal lines help accentuate the dimensions of the room and we think it feels more broad and expansive today as a result. The shiplap, when painted with a great finish, can feel cool and fresh, not clunky and rural as it is sometimes used. While on the wood topic, we did also install our favorite v-groove planks on the ceiling in here as well, continuing that contemporary treatment of an often mid-century detail. With all of this wood being added to a very humid room, we did upgrade the exhaust fan in here to the most powerful we could get our hands on, and our painter utilized Sherwin Williams’ line of Emerald paint, which is designed to inhibit moisture penetration and therefore prevent mold and mildew growing in here (#ewdavid) – definitely a boring topic but will keep us from having even worse topics to discuss in the future!

At the floor we knew we wanted something cool and grey but weren’t really inspired in one specific direction. We decided that we would just make it happen one day and went to one store and touched everything grey until Andrew stumbled upon what we have installed here, a blue travertine mosaic. The installation was unexpectedly easy, as we were able to utilize the existing mosaic tile as a substrate because it was integrally installed into the concrete subfloor, which resulted in the finish level of this new floor aligning with the wood floor from the corridor at the doorway – we really lucked out on that entire circumstance! The 3” geometries weave together an almost textile feel on the floor that feels great to the bottom of a bare foot and the veining within the stone pieces lends some organic warmth even on a cold surface. We love that the small scale of the tile helps the room feel larger and that its color tone provides a well- balanced sense of coolness and organic warmth.

The hardest part of this entire project was demolition, which involved removing a small mountain of the red wall tile. We spent a couple days banging and banging (our poor neighbors!) at the stuff, still carefully as possible, to remove it in sheets to protect the drywall beneath so we could use as a base for the shiplap installation. Gotta pause here for a moment to let you know that this bathroom used to be entirely pink! When the guy who grew up here visited he told us that originally this bathroom had its red tile PLUS pink-painted walls and wallpaper, as well as the holy trifecta of 1950’s pink sink, toilet, and tub. Once the wall tile was removed, we were able to unlock access to a linen closet that was built into the corner of the room and, sure enough, we did find evidence of the interior of the closet being painted pepto-pink and some small remaining scraps of the original pink wallpaper. Can you imagine your own beauty routine being bathed in luscious pink?!

With the linen closet removed (after carefully discussing that we’d be losing all of that storage!), we now had enough room to install a double vanity in here. In all our years together we’ve never lived in a place that had two sinks in a bathroom, and today we definitely luxuriate in being able to cohabitate a bathroom together during morning rush hour! At the vanity we elected to begin to layer in warmth and natural materials by introducing an oak finish amidst the white shiplap and stone flooring. Being budget conscious (and because every vanity today is surprisingly expensive) we selected a piece from a big-box store which we assembled ourselves. This piece is minimalist in design, meant to cantilever off the wall, but we hacked it and added some black metal legs to give it more of a furniture look and connect it to the floor. It has a clever design for its plumbing package that allows the four drawers to hold a high volume within, so even with an entire linen closet removed in this room, the storage remains almost the same.

Along with the oak vanity, which is a white oak like the flooring in other areas of the house, we also used oak to create floating shelves and a ledger that provide us with some additional surface area for storage and scatter that delicious wood texture around the room. Now, we did have to compromise and use red oak again for the shelving that we built ourselves, and there’s obviously a definite visual difference that we’ve had to just swallow. In the name of minding the total spend in this room we elected to source what we could easily get our hands on locally, which was red oak again. Over time we’ve come to get used to the difference but we are not ignorant to the sacrifice we made.

Also for storage, we have these unique mirrors for the vanity wall that have open storage behind them. We love the thin lines of the mirrors’ structure and the black punch they deliver, which also match perfectly with the super cool shower caddy we installed. Black hardware was also selected for all of our miscellaneous accessories in the room like towel holders. We made our own shower curtain rod from iron pipe, which we suspended from the ceiling in effort to add some verticality to the room and bring the eye upward. The little black pops are used sparingly to have high impact.

Our lighting fixtures on the vanity wall are white in effort to blend in and not distract from their adjacent mirrors and are on digital dimmers so you can select the best level of selfie light. At the ceiling, however, we installed a sweet woven pendant inspired by fishing baskets. We originally purchased a black metal piece for this location but realized we needed something suspending down from the ceiling to help balance what became a narrow-width room with a lot of things installed below eye height. We love the light airiness of this pendant and how it helps scale down the vertical volume of the room while providing a wood-toned organic pop higher in the space.

And, finally, for our plumbing fixtures we had to get really real. We so badly wanted to install matte black fixtures but took a realistic look at every plumbing fixture already in the house and had to accept that our water comes from a well and, while well conditioned, is still highly mineral-laden and every water source in this place is covered in spots. Installing black fixtures in a highly-trafficked room was going to drive us insane having to constantly clean and maintain. So we selected a suite of minimally-detailed fixtures in a soft nickel finish that has a spot-resistant coating. While we still wish we had little black pops here and there, we are grateful for the zero maintenance! We also happily replaced the aged toilet fixture with a new low-flow, dual-flush piece that is much more efficient (and better looking), and rejoiced in having a toilet back online near our bedroom for those mid-night scurries to the bathroom.

Lessons Learned

We learned the hard way that, no matter how good you think a plumbing situation is, you should always bring in the plumber for a consult before executing the work. When we called in the plumber at the end of the project to make the drain and faucet connections he found some issues with the conditions of the existing work in the wall that required some workarounds, which resulted in having to open up part of the wall again and an unexpected fat invoice to be paid. Always go to the pros!

You may note that we’ve not discussed the shower situation and this is why: we didn’t do anything! The previous owner had recently installed a solid-surface solution to cover the walls and tub, and while we don’t love the aesthetic of the faux-tile embossing, it is bright white, it’s water-tight, it’s super easy to clean, and we did not have to invest effort or money in refinishing the area. We consider the cost savings here as a deferral to a future dream shower. And while we’re talking about the shower we will proclaim that we are not fans of glass block nor the fact that it occurs TWICE (ugh) in this bathroom but we just had to embrace it and, honestly, it provides a huge benefit as a natural light source. There are certain times of day when showering in here is an absolute dream when you’re being bathed with both warm water AND warm sunlight.

Now that we have this incredibly bright, modernized space to occupy for our daily rituals, we’ve stocked it full with our go-to amenities for self care. With a patterned rug on the floor for post-shower foot warmth and a woven jute window shade for a sense of privacy, we used textiles to soften the space. A healthy dose of plants and greenery bring life into the room and work to cleanse the air. Vividly-colored imagery on the walls of water and sunlight bring a sense of joy and remind us of our inspirational sensibility for this room of beach-powered renewal. And while we were in the workshop cutting oak, we crafted a bath bar that fits sturdily within the tub and keeps our favorite bath time goodies close at hand – a quick DIY that adds to a sometimes well-needed bath experience.

We recently treated ourselves to a wide variety of goodies from the Water Street Bath Collection, including fluffy new white towels, a cozy new bath robe and slippers, gorgeous black marble containers, bath bombs and soaps, and several candles, lotions and potions. We said earlier that staying in is the new going out and we mean it – we are not leaving this house now! We’ve spoken previously about how our Master Bedroom gives us a place to restore ourselves and now we also have this great space to further do so, and we now see that we are building a home that treats us well!
Honestly we are so relieved that we are able to check this room off our to-do list; it was a complicated (ok, it wasn’t that bad, aside from the $1,700 plumber bill), expensive (like 5x more costly per square foot than anything else in this house), and time-consuming endeavor that we feared getting into. The whole room took us about nine weeks of work at night and over weekends, gave us zero fights, and got us back into heavy duty mode so we can succeed in our biggest projects yet – more to come!

How did we do? We love seeing your thoughts in the comments below and know that we have gotten a lot of great takeaways that have found their way into our future projects! Until we’re back again, you can always drop in for more details and background stories on Instagram (@florals4spring / @kielaaron) – see you soon with more (obviously white) projects to share!

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July 14, 2019

You made glass block look cool… I basically thought that was impossible. Beautiful space!

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